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Reader’s Digest: A Legacy Brand That’s Been For The People & Mostly By The People Since Its Inception And Now Sports Its First-Ever Reader-Generated Cover – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Bruce Kelley, Chief Content Officer, Reader’s Digest…

July 12, 2017

“People generally curate things themselves through Google searches and other ways, but they also rely on various brands to do the curating for them. And certainly with the magazine, that’s still our number one reason why we have such a loyal audience, because they trust our judgment about what will matter to them; what will make them feel good and what will make them feel smart. And that’s why we have a very successful print business. It’s really the foundation of everything we’re doing.” Bruce Kelley

Reader’s Digest has long been known for its uplifting content and for creating that special connection with its readers. In fact, for over 95 years now, the magazine has held a personal conversation with its audience by allowing them to actually be a part of the content. Before the phrase “user-generated” was ever coined, Reader’s Digest had mastered the art form.

At the helm of the legacy brand today is a man with more than two decades of editorial experience. From his most recent former position as editor of Prevention magazine, Bruce Kelley joined the RD team a year and a half ago with the same mindset as the heritage brand, but with an eye on its present digital footprint and into the future.

I spoke with Bruce recently and we talked about his desire to innovate the brand, while maintaining its core print/audience connection, and about how the magazine’s digital presence is growing because of millennials online—depending on the month, Bruce added that the RD.com audience was 35-40% millennials. The reader commitment and reader created content was ever-present throughout the conversation, and in fact was the common thread that ran through each and every new idea for Reader’s Digest’s future. From using the web to curate wanted content for the magazine, to utilizing the strength and creative power of its audience, Bruce talked about how the reader was always paramount in any decision made when it came to content. Right down to the most recent cover, which is the first reader-generated cover image the magazine has ever published. Something everyone at Reader’s Digest is very proud of.

So, I hope that you enjoy this glimpse into a legacy brand that knows exactly what audience first means, as that’s a mantra they’ve been practicing for almost a century now, and the conversation with a man who fits the magazine perfectly, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Bruce Kelley, chief content officer, Reader’s Digest.

But first, the sound-bites:

On what he thinks Reader’s Digest’s role is in this information society we digitally live in: People generally curate things themselves through Google searches and other ways, but they also rely on various brands to do the curating for them. And certainly with the magazine, that’s still our number one reason why we have such a loyal audience, because they trust our judgment about what will matter to them; what will make them feel good and what will make them feel smart. And that’s why we have a very successful print business. It’s really the foundation of everything we’re doing.

On the reader-generated cover on the most recent issue of the magazine: User-generated content and reader content is so built into our DNA. We run stories all of the time and cover stories as well that are either roundups of readers telling their stories of acts of kindness or when I fell in love as a couple, and those have really resonated with our magazine audience in the last year, or since I’ve been here. So, in this case we do an annual photo contest in our July issue. The theme was “Sea to Shining Sea,” which is a very Reader’s Digest kind of theme, and it was a good trigger and we received an amazing quality of submissions from our readers. But then as we were looking at them, we saw real candidates for the cover.

On whether being editor at Reader’s Digest was his dream job when he was offered the position while still at Prevention: It was my dream job for multiple reasons, and the main one is the legacy and the audience. This is an audience that is so committed to this brand, and this brand is so wrapped up in how they view the world and the brand is so reflective of them that to me, as someone who loves to connect with an audience, and I think I’m good at it, this is sort of the ultimate play land. So, that’s number one.

On the biggest stumbling block he had to face: When I got to Reader’s Digest we had a small digital footprint. And my job was to edit the magazine and grow our digital presence so that we would start to more aggressively negotiate where RD will be in five years; in ten years. Like how it will be on people’s phones; how will it be on people’s video screens; how will it be as powerful a force in people’s lives, including millennials, as it has been for generations?

On why he thinks we’re seeing so much success from digital entities going to print, such as The Magnolia Journal, but still finding difficulty when it comes to print going to digital success: I don’t want to speak for others. Before I was with Prevention, I was with ESPN, and that was a really good experience for me, because I saw what it was like to have the magazine be the gem of a brand, like a really high-quality product, but not the driver of the growth, which was still TV and digital. When you experience that, it’s pretty easy to flip it in your own head if you’re smart and see that any magazine brand needs to flip a switch in their head about how they think about content. For me, I started at Prevention and began to think, wow, let’s grow digital and use our digital content to help supply the magazine with gem-like content, the best that you can curate from the web.

On a standout moment he’s had since joining the Reader’s Digest team: Actually, I’m holding one in my hand which hasn’t been published yet, our September issue. It’s an annual genius issue that we do, and the biggest story in the issue is a package of underappreciated words, phrases and punctuation; the nerd stuff around language, grammar and word power, which is obviously one of our big brands.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: I’d like to say that people did their best work under me. That’s what I’m most proud of in my career. Getting out of the way and letting people, editors, writers, photo editors, creative directors, do their best work.

On what keeps him up at night: For the last month, we’ve been doing a big UGC (User Generated Content) campaign experiment called “The Nicest Place in America.” And it was entirely my idea and it was entirely an idea that came out of where we are as a country and how public discourse has become meaner and more cutting and Reader’s Digest stands for a different way of communicating. When I explain it to people at first, they’re like, “Will people get it?” Well, it’s blowing up and I’m very proud of it. And it keeps me up because I want to do well by it.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Bruce Kelley, chief content officer, Reader’s Digest.

Samir Husni: I was looking at the history of Reader’s Digest and the prospectus that DeWitt Wallace did, and in it he talked about the fact that there was so much information and so little time. Hence, Reader’s Digest was born; giving people the essence of what was going on without spending inordinate amounts of time discussing it. Do you feel today we’re living the same lifestyle as Wallace was talking about almost 100 years ago? If they were talking about the abundance of information even back then, what would DeWitt Wallace think about today? And what role do you think Reader’s Digest plays in that scheme today, some 95 years later?

Bruce Kelley: It’s a great question. And it’s fun to talk about, because when you think about that history there are two things in that history that are badly needed now. One is curation. People generally curate things themselves through Google searches and other ways, but they also rely on various brands to do the curating for them.

And certainly with the magazine, that’s still our number one reason why we have such a loyal audience, because they trust our judgment about what will matter to them; what will make them feel good and what will make them feel smart. And that’s why we have a very successful print business. It’s really the foundation of everything we’re doing.

In terms of digital though, it’s a lot more complicated. And there are a lot of people who are trying to curate and also a lot of people who are trying to claim to be that source that will cut out all of that stuff you don’t want and focus you on the things that you do want. And so it’s a very competitive field.

I think what we’re trying to do, and doing successfully, is really carving out a special spirit in our content that’s part of our DNA, which is content that does make you feel good. And it makes you feel good for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s an oasis from the minute-by-minute madness of information that we live in.

And number two is because it’s very heartland, common sense-type advice and good storytelling. So, it’s not like we’re the only people that have that content, but we’re the only ones probably that are staking our whole claim on it.

Samir Husni: Reader’s Digest has always cherished and even paid for readers’ submissions almost from the magazine’s inception. Why did you decide, for the first time in its history, to allow even the cover to be reader-generated? Although there is a lot of reader-created content within the magazine, what gave you the idea to also include the cover?

Bruce Kelley: User-generated content and reader content is so built into our DNA. We run stories all of the time and cover stories as well that are either roundups of readers telling their stories of acts of kindness or when I fell in love as a couple, and those have really resonated with our magazine audience in the last year, or since I’ve been here.

So, in this case we do an annual photo contest in our July issue. The theme was “Sea to Shining Sea,” which is a very Reader’s Digest kind of theme, and it was a good trigger and we received an amazing quality of submissions from our readers. But then as we were looking at them, we saw real candidates for the cover. And for the first time we thought, geez, we could have a reader cover. So, it was a stated goal, it was something that we backed into because the quality was so good and it so resonated with us as editors.

And then we zeroed in on this one, particular image, which I think you’ve seen. It’s just an epic American landscape shot. So, then we called the reader, which is what we do. We call the reader and find out what the story behind the image is, which is always the best part in some ways. The image is great, but you need that paragraph that says why this image is really important to them. Why they submitted it; either because of the artistry of it, which they’re proud of, or because of the story behind it.

In this case, the story behind this place was just an epic family history, really. Essentially, this reader had been there as a kid with his grandfather, and then many years later was taking his own grandchildren there to that spot to backpack. And as the reporter sort of dove more deeply into the story, it turned out that when one of his sons was 15, he had last seen him during a backpacking trip at that site. His son had gone off on a boy scouting trip and had died in the Grand Canyon trying to rescue other scouts.

So, when that story came out and the intensity of why he goes back there and why he photographs it, and how he lives in his memories, but also still takes all of his grandkids, which he has 23 of them; it just floored us. I’ve been here a year and a half and I can say that when you open yourself up to reader submissions, you open yourself up to just what America really is at its core and at its best. And to me, this is the story that I will tell for as long as I’m here, and probably longer, about what it really means to be editor of Reader’s Digest. It’s quite a privilege.

Samir Husni: A year and a half ago when you received the offer to be the editor of Reader’s Digest, can you relive that moment for me? You were editing Prevention at that time, and there appears to be quite a bit of history of the editors of Prevention moving to Reader’s Digest; what was your reaction? Did you think you’d landed your dream job or were you hesitant?

Bruce Kelley: It was my dream job for multiple reasons, and the main one is the legacy and the audience. This is an audience that is so committed to this brand, and this brand is so wrapped up in how they view the world and the brand is so reflective of them that to me, as someone who loves to connect with an audience, and I think I’m good at it, this is sort of the ultimate play land. So, that’s number one.

Number two is, the management at Trusted Media Brands now is really outstanding. And the position we have right now as a company that’s been through a lot, but has great brands and is now not just strong, but is growing, that is just thrilling to me. In these treacherous times for media, if you don’t have a great CEO, it’s just hard to make headway, and I feel good to be working for a great CEO like Bonnie Kintzer. And the management team that she has put together is top of line. I felt like we could go beyond just managing decline as many brands are doing, and build from our foundation and grow again. And in today’s magazine world, that’s what you want.

Samir Husni: What was the biggest stumbling block you faced and how did you overcome it?

Bruce Kelley: When I got to Reader’s Digest we had a small digital footprint. And my job was to edit the magazine and grow our digital presence so that we would start to more aggressively negotiate where RD will be in five years; in ten years. Like how it will be on people’s phones; how will it be on people’s video screens; how will it be as powerful a force in people’s lives, including millennials, as it has been for generations?

I don’t have any illusions that we’re going to get a lot of millennials to buy the magazine, but we’re growing because of millennials online—depending on the month, our RD.com audience is 35-40% millennials. Why? They have the same wish to feel good and get help on life’s little issues that our legacy audience does, and then when they’re searching Google or browsing FB, they click on our posts because they have generally good feelings about RD. Good feelings about a brand get you a long way with millennials and everyone else.

So, that’s my job. It’s really starting from relatively scratch; we had to scale up how much content that we produce. So, we’ve gone from producing basically one or two stories per day, to 35 stories per day. So, we are now an hourly digital publishing operation, which has been an incredible experience.

Samir Husni: Why do you think in the last few years that we’ve seen a lot of successes with blogs coming to print; television networks coming to print, from the Food Network to The Magnolia Journal, you name it; we’ve seen a lot of success with this model. Why do you think legacy media is still struggling with that moving to the other side; the digital side, when digital is seeing great success moving to print?

Bruce Kelley: I don’t want to speak for others. Before I was with Prevention, I was with ESPN, and that was a really good experience for me, because I saw what it was like to have the magazine be the gem of a brand, like a really high-quality product, but not the driver of the growth, which was still TV and digital.

When you experience that, it’s pretty easy to flip it in your own head if you’re smart and see that any magazine brand needs to flip a switch in their head about how they think about content. For me, I started at Prevention and began to think, wow, let’s grow digital and use our digital content to help supply the magazine with gem-like content, the best that you can curate from the web.

And coming to Reader’s Digest, that’s been even more powerful because we’re generating so much digital content. And we have a history of “that’s what we do.” We curate from print; we curate from digital; we curate from whoever is doing good things, and now we’re curating a ton of our magazine content from our own website, high-performing content. Many of our cover stories now are essentially downstream from listicles and slideshows and other pieces that have run over the previous weeks and months.

And that model comes naturally to me at this point, but I still think that other editors at magazines around the country look at that and think it’s crazy. It doesn’t seem crazy to me; it seems perfectly natural. Why wouldn’t you use the web as a testing ground for your gem product? And pay attention to what people are sharing and to which headlines are clicking and then migrate that information and those analytics and that content into your best possible magazine.

Samir Husni: Has there been one shining moment in the year and a half that you’ve been at RD where you just stopped in your tracks and said, “Wow, I did it?”

Bruce Kelley: Actually, I’m holding one in my hand which hasn’t been published yet, our September issue. It’s an annual genius issue that we do, and the biggest story in the issue is a package of underappreciated words, phrases and punctuation; the nerd stuff around language, grammar and word power, which is obviously one of our big brands.

And all of that content, which is 14 pages of just unbelievably delightful content, has come out of literally dozens and dozens of posts, slideshows and listicles, and has been curated by an editor and writer who actually wrote a lot of it for the web and a lot of it performs really well. And that’s now a magazine package that’s going to just so delight our readers and has a cover line “89 Words That Will Build Your Brain.”

There’s actually one piece in there, which I just smiled so much when I saw it, which is by Brandon Specktor, who’s just a brilliant writer and really understands the brand. He wrote a post called “The Most Complicated Word in the English Language Which Has Three Letters; Do You Know What It Is?” And the post reflected a research study that had come out to analyze the word that has the most uses in English, and it turned out that the word was “run.” Not what you might think. When he wrote the post up, it completely blew up on Facebook. And it got incredible reach; it’s been shared tens of thousands of times. So, to watch that piece, that little item, migrate into sort of a foundational half-page story in the magazine; it seems like a small thing, but it’s very exciting for me.

I don’t know what to say. It’s like using the web to really figure out what people most care about and then giving it to them in magazine form as well.

Samir Husni: If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

Bruce Kelley: I’d like to say that people did their best work under me. That’s what I’m most proud of in my career. Getting out of the way and letting people, editors, writers, photo editors, creative directors, do their best work.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Bruce Kelley: For the last month, we’ve been doing a big UGC (User Generated Content) campaign experiment called “The Nicest Place in America.” And it was entirely my idea and it was entirely an idea that came out of where we are as a country and how public discourse has become meaner and more cutting and Reader’s Digest stands for a different way of communicating.

And so I thought, let’s get our readers and users around the country to send us examples of places, whether it’s towns, workplaces, restaurants, places of worship; whatever places in their lives, neighborhoods, blocks, a place where they exemplify doing things civil, believing in each other, trusting each other, and just be nice.

When I explain it to people at first, they’re like, “Will people get it?” Well, it’s blowing up and I’m very proud of it. And it keeps me up because I want to do well by it. You had to apply online; you go online and tell the story of your place, show pictures, do video; it’s like applying for college. And we got over 300 nominations, everything from a tiny town in Nebraska to Burning Man, which is a cultural festival. And now we’ve cut it to 10 nominees; 10 finalists, and the voting is going on now. We’re up to 20,000 votes and we’re hoping for two or three times that many by the end of the voting period.

We’re using it as a way to generate just a ton of caring, Facebook-actioned, curated stories out of the content we’re being sent. It’s been like opening up a geyser of American spirit and storytelling. I’m obsessed with it. I spend about 15 hours per day trying to figure out how to make it fly into a bigger brand and it’s going to be our November cover story. And again, that content will migrate beautifully into a great cover package.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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